Professors as entertainers? Certainly engagers!

Jeff Solingo’s article this morning in The Chronicle of Higher Ed, Pay Attention in Class,  certainly poses some interesting discussion points. Some key points that he addresses include:

  • The amount of distractions such as Facebook students have available to them during classes due to technology
  • The consumer-mindedness of students and parents
  • Does the consumer-mindedness of students result in an expectation that the professor should be a performer and keep students entertained?

In reading the article, I began to consider my experiences in occupational therapy education and how these issues applied. First students do have “distractions” available to them. But let’s be honest, students have always had distractions available to them. Thinking back to my undergraduate days, laptops were available but  prohibitively expensive, so they weren’t yet commonly used by students. We certainly didn’t have smartphones. But we did have paper and pencil. And yes, as studious as I was and as much as I loved most classes, I remember passing notes to classmates. So whereas the modality of distraction is different in classrooms today, I am not sure it is realistic to expect 100% attention of all students all of the time.

For better or worse, these aspects of technology and “distractions” are not only a part of our classes but a part of all of our lives. I attended a professional meeting about a month ago, and was similarly struck that during the presentations, probably 75% of attendees  — who were faculty and deans — were on their phones. I can’t say if they were texting, tweeting, emailing, or playing games, so we will stop short of any discussions on the ability for most to successfully multi-task. However, I think it illustrates that students’ behavior in this regard probably mirrors our own more than we care to admit.

As far as the consumer-mindedness of students and parents, I say this is only reasonable, especially given the cost of higher education. Education is a type of service for which our students are paying to receive. In the health professions, students implicitly trust that we will prepare them to successfully enter their chosen profession. They put a lot of trust in us and in our abilities as educators. I know some say the consumerism mentality is a foray to a slippery slope of issues like grade inflation and a sense of entitlement on behalf of the student. But I think there is a lot of territory to address between “the customer is always right” mantra and authoritarianism on the part of institutions to say that students have no prerogative to have certain expectations of their educational experiences.

But is it one of students’ expectations that we as faculty must be entertainers? Entertainment is probably not the best choice of words. Undoubtedly, it is human nature to want to be engaged. Occupational therapists certainly understand the core of this concept! It is human nature to be actively engaged and we are most successful when we are motivated. With regard to educational situations,  we have all undoubtedly had experiences that seemed endless because of lack of engagement, and we have all had great experiences because the person who was presenting the information was passionate about the topic and maintained the participants’ interest. So again, students’ expectations are really no different from our own. And if students are generally engaged, isn’t it safe to assume their attention to other distraction will naturally be less? So should professors be engagers….absolutely!

This statement from the article really resonated with me:

Gandhi argues that if Harvard (or any college, for that matter) doesn’t respond to this competition for students’ attention, it risks making the educational experience irrelevant. “Professors need to start thinking of themselves as service providers who must constantly innovate to serve students better, servicing students’ curiosity and their desire to apply knowledge to create impact,” Gandhi maintains

As OT educators, we have meet our accrediting standrds with regard to content in our currciculum.  Most OT educators are passionate about teaching, because it is a career path they have actively pursued and attained additional qualifications to do so. And we are fortunate in that our students are highly motivated. They may not love every course they are required to take, but they are in our educational programs because they are working hard to become OTs. So we are fortunate because we have a  lot with which to work! Therefore I think the concept of educators being “service providers” who work to  engage students in their educational process is something OT educators are very comfortable doing! Do you agree?

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